Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Tom Brake: I understand the hon. Lady's comments and the purpose of the amendment. However, I cannot foresee circumstances in which the RAIB would not be consulted about the establishment of such a body, so I am not convinced of the need for it to appear in the Bill.

Mr. Spellar: There might be a problem with timing, as the Committee will know that the Office of the Rail Regulator is currently consulting on licence modification, which will ensure that standards set by the RSSB are maintained. The rail regulator hopes that the RSSB will be established in April, which I anticipate will be before the Bill has completed its passage through Parliament.

While we aim for transparency among different bodies, we must be clear about their roles, which is probably the purpose behind the amendment from the hon. Member for Vale of York. As Lord Cullen recommended, the aim of the RAIB will be to determine the root causes of accidents so that safety lessons can be learned, improving safety through the industry and preventing future railway accidents and incidents. However, it will not be the safety authority. Responsibility for that will remain with the Health and Safety Executive, which, like the RAIB, will work closely with the industry's safety body, the RSSB. It will not be part of the Department but a body that sets safety standards for the industry and ensures that they are followed. It is important that there is a transparent interrelationship and clear communication between the bodies, but it is equally important that they maintain their separate and particular roles.

Miss McIntosh: I have just a short question. The Minister made it clear that the RSSB will be a body for the industry. Am I right in understanding that the RSSB will report to the ORR, not his Department? If so, what scrutiny will there be of the RSSB in this place?

The Chairman: May I take this opportunity to invite Members to assume that the poor souls who will read this debate in the future will have to cope with the acronyms without any explanation? The Minister may want to want to join the ranks of those poor souls.

11 am

Miss McIntosh: I was trying to be brief, Mr. Hood. The Minister has confirmed that the railway safety and standards board will set the standards of safety for industry. If I have understood the Minister correctly, it will report to the Office of the Rail Regulator. It will therefore be independent of his Department. What opportunity will we have to scrutinise the work of the RSSB?

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The Chairman: I am sure that the Minister understood that question.

Mr. Spellar: I did indeed, and I am fascinated by the prospect of the record of the Committee's proceedings being a bestseller that is widely read by future generations in the classics section of libraries. That reminds me of my previous incarnation in the Ministry of Defence when our good friend, George Robertson, said at his first meeting with the Chief of Defence Staff that one of his objectives was to try to do away with the use of acronyms in the Department. The then Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, leant forward and said, ''I think that you'll find solving Bosnia will be easier, Secretary of State.'' We will try, as always, to follow the injunctions from the Chair.

It is important to stress that the statutory safety body for the railway industry is, and remains, the Health and Safety Executive. The railway safety and standards board, as we must now call it, will be an industry body that drives up safety standards in the industry. The Health and Safety Executive is the statutory body that is answerable to Parliament. These are important distinctions as they relate to the roles of the various bodies, to which the hon. Member for Bath alluded.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for your patience in allowing me to give the acronym its full title, Mr. Hood.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but I must voice some disappointment. The railway safety and standards board will have the important task of driving up standards for the industry, as the hon. Member for Bath said and as the Minister confirmed. Rather than just reporting to the Office of the Rail Regulator, it would be more appropriate for that body to have the opportunity to have its work inspected and scrutinised by hon. Members. I do not want to press the amendment to the vote, but I would like the opportunity to return to these points at a later date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Miss McIntosh: On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I would like to request a debate on clause 5 stand part after we discuss amendments Nos. 14 and 8.

The Chairman: The hon. Lady may request anything that she likes when we come to that part. However, we are about to vote on clause 4 stand part.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Assistance to others

Mr. Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in

    clause 5, page 2, line 29, after 'arrange', insert

    'with written consent from the Secretary of State'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in

    clause 5, page 2, line 32, at end add—

    '(2) The Secretary of State will provide the Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents with directions and guidance relating to the occasions on which assistance may be given as described in subsection (1) above.'.

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Mr. Foster: The clause is relatively uncontentious. We wait with interest to see what issues the hon. Member for Vale of York wants to debate other than those covered by the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The clause says:

    ''The Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents may arrange for the Rail Accident Investigation Branch to assist any person; in particular assistance—

    (a) may be provided with or without charge;

    (b) may be provided inside or outside the United Kingdom.''

The title of the clause is interesting because it states that the body may provide assistance to others. There was much debate on Second Reading about the merits of the rail accident investigation branch examining incidents on the railway even if there had been no fatalities or serious injuries. The argument in favour was that the new body would gain a great deal of intelligence in so doing, and that that would be of assistance to it in doing its work. It logically follows that if the rail accident investigation branch were to work with, for example, the air accident investigation branch or the marine accident investigation branch, it would also learn techniques that would be of benefit to it in achieving its general aims as stated in clause 4. The Committee should see the benefit of the rail accident investigation branch involving itself more widely to gain intelligence, to learn new techniques and to practise those techniques in situations that might not occur on the railways in the foreseeable future.

However, clause 5 provides for the possibility that the rail accident investigation branch's services may be provided ''with or without charge.'' The implication is that the work would be carried out primarily for the benefit of another organisation. That might conflict with the general aims stated in clause 4. Given the possibility of the rail accident investigation branch involving itself with the activities of other bodies primarily for those other bodies' benefit and for charge, clarity as to the circumstances in which that might happen is important.

I have already alluded to my concern, shared by other hon. Members, about the relatively small size of this new organisation. I am delighted to hear from the Minister that it will be slightly larger than some people were led to believe. Nevertheless, there is concern about the limited size and budget of the rail accident investigation branch, and about the constraints under which it will therefore operate. It would be worrying if those constraints forced it to undertake paid consultancy work elsewhere. That could lead to all sorts of problems.

The Minister may say that that is a fatuous thought, and that that situation could not possibly arise. However, a similar situation arose when the Office for Standards in Education was set up. The Minister will be aware of that because many Government Members share my concern about the matter. The Office for Standards in Education was set up primarily to conduct inspections of schools across the country. As a consequence, many local authority advisers whose work until then had been to give advice to local schools found themselves undertaking inspections on behalf of the Office for Standards in

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Education as a way of bringing money into their local authorities. I hope that the Committee are impressed that I have not used a single acronym so far in this debate.

There is a concern that, in the same way as local authority advisers are distracted from doing their work in helping local schools because they are earning money working for the Office for Standards in Education, the rail accident investigation branch, especially if its finances are constrained, might begin to do paid work for other bodies.

The purpose of amendments Nos. 14 and 8 is to ensure that some limit is imposed on the rail accident investigation branch. I am no great fan of regulation or of giving additional powers to the Secretary of State. I am sure that the Committee is well aware of that and therefore finds it slightly odd that my two amendments give additional powers to the Secretary of State and add to the regulations that will emerge from the Bill. Lest the Minister should jump up to raise that point, I have raised it for him. On this occasion, there is merit in doing things in such ways.

I am concerned to ensure that there is much greater clarity about the scope of the outside work that may be carried out by the new body. However, I am also concerned because the heading of the clause does not indicate that such work is not primarily of direct benefit to the new body or in meeting the general aims stated in clause 4. The Minister may want to assure me that there will be some constraint on such work and that the RAIB will be a professional body—I am sure that it will—and would not dream of doing things that lead away from its general aims. I have already given one example—no doubt there are others—of how such things can happen if we are not careful.

 
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